Phonemically, Bengali features 29 consonants and 7 vowels. Each vowel has examples of being nasalized in Bengali words, thus adding 7 more additional nasalized vowels. In the tables below, the sounds are given in IPA.
|voiced aspirated (murmured)[j]||bʱ[k]||dʱ||ɖʱ||dʒʱ[h]||ɡʱ|
Although the standard form of Bengali is largely uniform across West Bengal and Bangladesh, there are a few sounds that vary in pronunciation (in addition to the myriad variations in non-standard dialects):
- The phonetic quality of /u/ may also be a fully back near-close rounded vowel /ʊ/.
- When preceding a vowel in word-initial positions, /w/ may occur as an allophone of /o/ and /u/, especially in loan words e.g. ওয়াদা [wada], উইলিয়াম [wiliam].
- /æ/ can occur as an allophone of either /ɛ/ or /e/ depending on the speaker or variety.
- /o/, represented by the letter ও, was originally pronounced as /ʊ/, though /o/ entered the Bengali phonology by Sanskrit influence. In modern Bengali, both the ancient and adopted pronunciation of ও can be heard in spoken. Example: The word নোংরা (meaning "foul") is pronounced as /nʊŋra/ and /noŋra/ (Romanized as both nungra and nongra), both.
- /a/ is phonetically realised as a near-open central vowel [ɐ] by most speakers.
- True retroflex (murdhonno) consonants are not found in Bengali. They are apical postalveolar in Western Dialects. In other dialects, they are fronted to apico-alveolar.
- [ɳ] may occur as an allophone of /n/ in conjuncts with other retroflex letters as it was the original sound for the letter ণ while in other words it is pronounced as [n] like with the letter ন.
- Palato-alveolar affricates [tʃ] and [tʃʰ], and [dʒ] and [dʒʱ] can also be pronounced as alveolo-palatal affricates [tɕ] and [tɕʰ], and [dʑ] and [dʑʱ].
- /pʰ/ (written as ⟨ফ⟩) is phonetically realised as either [pʰ] or a voiceless bilabial fricative [ɸ].
- The murmured series is missing in the Eastern Bengali of Dhaka and in Chittagong Bengali, where it is replaced by tone, as in Punjabi.
- /bʱ/ is usually phonetically realised as either [bʱ] or [β] depending on the variety and speaker. [β] can additionally occur as an allophone of [bʱ] in foreign loan words e.g. ভিসা [βisa] 'visa'.
- /s/ is a phoneme for many speakers of Standard Bengali (e.g. সিরকা /sirka/ 'vinegar', অস্থির /ɔstʰir/ 'uneasy', ব্যস /bas/ or /bɛs/ 'enough'). For most speakers, /s/ and /ʃ/ are phonemically distinct (আস্তে /aste/ 'softly' vs. আসতে /aʃte/ 'to come'). For some, especially in Rajshahi, there is no difference between স and শ, (বাস /bas/ 'bus' vs. বাঁশ /bas/ 'bamboo'); they have the same consonant sound. For some speakers, [s] can be analyzed as an allophone of either /ʃ/ or /tʃʰ/ ([ʃalam] for সালাম [salam] 'greetings' or বিচ্ছিরি [bitʃːʰiri] for বিশ্রী [bisːri] 'ugly'). Some words that originally had /s/ are now pronounced with [tʃʰ] in Standard Bengali (পছন্দ pochondo [pɔtʃʰondo] 'like', compared to Persian pasand).
- /z/: ⟨জ⟩ and ⟨য⟩ may represent a voiced affricate /dʒ/ in Standard Bengali words of native origin, but they can also represent /z/ in foreign words and names (জাকাত [zakat] 'zakah charity', আজিজ [aziz] 'Aziz'). Many speakers replace /z/ with /dʒ/. However, a native s/z opposition has developed in Chittagonian Bengali. Additionally, Some words that originally had /z/ are now pronounced with [dʑ] in Standard Bengali (সবজি [ɕobdʑi] 'vegetable', from Persian sabzi).
- /ʃ/ may be phonetically realised as either [ʃ] or [ɕ] depending on the variety and speaker.
- /ɦ/: /h/ occurs in word-initial or final positions while /ɦ/ occurs medially.
- The [j] phoneme occurs in some pronunciations of Bengali vowel clusters, such as নয়ন [nɔjon].
- The /r/ phoneme is pronounced either as a voiced alveolar trill [r], voiced alveolar flap [ɾ] or voiced alveolar approximant [ɹ]. Most speakers pronounce /r/ as a flap [ɾ], although the trill [r] may occur word-initially; with the flap [ɾ] occurring medially and finally. /r/ is usually realised as an approximant [ɹ] in some Eastern dialects.
- /ɽ/: In the form of Standard Bengali spoken in Dhaka and other Eastern dialects, /r/ and /ɽ/ are often indistinct phonemically and both may be phonetically realised as [ɹ]. Thus the pairs পড়ে /pɔɽe/ 'reads'/'falls' vs. পরে /pɔre/ 'wears'/'after', and করা /kɔra/ 'do' vs. কড়া [kɔɽa] 'strict' can be homophonous.
Native Bengali (তদ্ভব tôdbhôbo) words do not allow initial consonant clusters; the maximum syllabic structure is CVC (i.e. one vowel flanked by a consonant on each side). Many speakers of Bengali restrict their phonology to this pattern, even when using Sanskrit or English borrowings, such as গেরাম geram (CV.CVC) for গ্রাম gram (CCVC) meaning 'village' or ইস্কুল iskul / ishkul (VC.CVC) for স্কুল skul (CCVC) 'school'.
Sanskrit (তৎসম tôtshômo) words borrowed into Bengali, however, possess a wide range of clusters, expanding the maximum syllable structure to CCCVC. Some of these clusters, such as the [mr] in মৃত্যু mrittü ('death') or the [sp] in স্পষ্ট spôshṭo ('clear'), have become extremely common, and can be considered permitted consonant clusters in Bengali. English and other foreign (বিদেশী bideshi) borrowings add even more cluster types into the Bengali inventory, further increasing the syllable capacity, as commonly-used loanwords such as ট্রেন ṭren ('train') and গ্লাস glash ('glass') are now included in leading Bengali dictionaries.
Final consonant clusters are rare in Bengali. Most final consonant clusters were borrowed into Bengali from English, as in লিফ্ট lifṭ ('elevator') and ব্যাংক beņk ("bank'). However, final clusters do exist in some native Bengali words, although rarely in standard pronunciation. One example of a final cluster in a standard Bengali word would be গঞ্জ gônj, which is found in names of hundreds of cities and towns across Bengal, including নবাবগঞ্জ Nôbabgônj and মানিকগঞ্জ Manikgônj. Some nonstandard varieties of Bengali make use of final clusters quite often. For example, in some Purbo (eastern) dialects, final consonant clusters consisting of a nasal and its corresponding oral stop are common, as in চান্দ chand ('moon'). The Standard Bengali equivalent of chand would be চাঁদ chãd, with a nasalized vowel instead of the final cluster.
|/ii̯/||ii||nii "I take"|
|/ei̯/||ei||dei "I give"|
|/ɛe̯/||ee||nee "(s)he takes"|
|/ai̯/||ai||pai "I find"|
|/ae̯/||ae||pae "(s)he finds"|
|/au̯/||au||pau "sliced bread"|
|/ao̯/||ao||pao "you find"|
|/ɔe̯/||ôe||nôe "(s)he is not"|
|/ɔo̯/||ôo||nôo "you are not"|
|/oi̯/||oi||noi "I am not"|
|/oo̯/||oo||dhoo "you wash"|
|/ui̯/||ui||dhui "I wash"|
Magadhan languages such as Bengali are known for their wide variety of diphthongs, or combinations of vowels occurring within the same syllable. Two of these, /oi̯/ and /ou̯/, are the only ones with representation in script, as ঐ and ঔ respectively. The semivowels /e̯ i̯ o̯ u̯/ may all form the glide part of a diphthong. The total number of diphthongs is not established, with bounds at 17 and 31. Several vowel combinations can be considered true monosyllabic diphthongs, made up of the main vowel (the nucleus) and the trailing vowel (the off-glide). Almost all other vowel combinations are possible, but only across two adjacent syllables, such as the disyllabic vowel combination [u.a] in কুয়া kua ('well'). As many as 25 vowel combinations can be found, but some of the more recent combinations have not passed through the stage between two syllables and a diphthongal monosyllable.
In standard Bengali, stress is predominantly initial. Bengali words are virtually all trochaic; the primary stress falls on the initial syllable of the word, while secondary stress often falls on all odd-numbered syllables thereafter, giving strings such as সহযোগিতা shôhojogita [ˈʃɔhoˌdʒoɡiˌta] ('cooperation'). The first syllable carries the greatest stress, with the third carrying a somewhat weaker stress, and all following odd-numbered syllables carrying very weak stress. However, in words borrowed from Sanskrit, the root syllable has stress, out of harmony with the situation with native Bengali words. Also, in a declarative sentence, the stress is generally lowest on the last word of the sentence.
Adding prefixes to a word typically shifts the stress to the left; for example, while the word সভ্য shobbho [ˈʃobbʱo] ('civilized') carries the primary stress on the first syllable, adding the negative prefix /ɔ-/ creates অসভ্য ôshobbho [ˈɔʃobbʱo] ('uncivilized'), where the primary stress is now on the newly added first syllable অ ô. Word-stress does not alter the meaning of a word and is always subsidiary to sentence-level stress.
For Bengali words, intonation or pitch of voice have minor significance, apart from a few cases such as distinguishing between identical vowels in a diphthong. However, in sentences intonation does play a significant role. In a simple declarative sentence, most words and/or phrases in Bengali carry a rising tone, with the exception of the last word in the sentence, which only carries a low tone. This intonational pattern creates a musical tone to the typical Bengali sentence, with low and high tones alternating until the final drop in pitch to mark the end of the sentence.
In sentences involving focused words and/or phrases, the rising tones only last until the focused word; all following words carry a low tone. This intonation pattern extends to wh-questions, as wh-words are normally considered to be focused. In yes-no questions, the rising tones may be more exaggerated, and most importantly, the final syllable of the final word in the sentence takes a high falling tone instead of a flat low tone.
Like most Magadhan languages, vowel length is not contrastive in Bengali; all else equal, there is no meaningful distinction between a "short vowel" and a "long vowel", unlike the situation in most Indo-Aryan languages. However, when morpheme boundaries come into play, vowel length can sometimes distinguish otherwise homophonous words. This is because open monosyllables (i.e. words that are made up of only one syllable, with that syllable ending in the main vowel and not a consonant) can have somewhat longer vowels than other syllable types. For example, the vowel in ca ('tea') can be somewhat longer than the first vowel in caṭa ('licking'), as ca is a word with only one syllable, and no final consonant. The suffix ṭa ('the') can be added to ca to form caṭa ('the tea'), and the long vowel is preserved, creating a minimal pair ([ˈtʃaʈa] vs. [ˈtʃaˑʈa]). Knowing this fact, some interesting cases of apparent vowel length distinction can be found. In general, Bengali vowels tend to stay away from extreme vowel articulation.
Furthermore, using a form of reduplication called "echo reduplication", the long vowel in ca can be copied into the reduplicant ṭa, giving caṭa ('tea and all that comes with it'). Thus, in addition to caṭa ('the tea') with a longer first vowel and caṭa ('licking') with no long vowels, we have caṭa ('tea and all that comes with it') with two longer vowels.
Regional phonological variations
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The phonological alternations of Bengali vary greatly due to the dialectal differences between the speech of Bengalis living on the পশ্চিম Poschim (western) side and পূর্ব Purbo (eastern) side of the Padma River.
Affricates and Fricatives
In the dialects prevalent in much of eastern and south-eastern Bangladesh (Barisal, Chittagong, Dhaka and Sylhet Divisions of Bangladesh), many of the stops and affricates heard in the West Bengal dialects are pronounced as fricatives. Western Palato-alveolar and alveolo-palatal affricates চ [tɕɔ~tʃɔ], ছ [tɕʰɔ~tʃʰɔ], জ [dʑɔ~dʒɔ] correspond to eastern চ [tsɔ], ছ [tsʰɔ~sɔ], জ [dzɔ~zɔ].
The aspirated velar stop খ [kʰ], the unvoiced aspirated labial stop ফ [pʰ] and the voiced aspirated labial stop ভ [bʰ] of Poshcim/western Bengali dialects correspond to খ় [x~ʜ], ফ় [f~ɸ] and ভ [β~v] in many dialects of Purbo/eastern Bengali. These pronunciations are more prevalent in the Sylheti language of northeastern Bangladesh and south Assam, the language spoken by most of the Bengali-identifying community in the United Kingdom.
The influence of Tibeto-Burman languages on the phonology is mostly on the Bengali dialects spoken east of the Padma River and relatively less in West and South Bengal, as is seen by the lack of nasalized vowels in eastern Bengal, but nasalization is present in Indian Bengali dialects and an alveolar articulation for the otherwise postalveolar stops ট [t̠], ঠ [t̠ʰ], ড [d̠], and ঢ [d̠ʱ], resembling the equivalent phonemes in languages such as Thai and Lao.
In the phonology of West and Southern Bengal, the distinction between র [r] and ড়/ঢ় [ɽ] is clear and distinct like neighbouring Indian languages. However, on the far eastern dialectal continuum, Tibeto-Burman influence makes the distinction less clear, and it sometimes becomes similar to the phonology of the Assamese ৰ rô [ɹ]. Unlike most languages of the region, Purbo/eastern Bengali dialects tend not to distinguish aspirated voiced stops ঘ [ɡʱ], ঝ [dʑʱ], ঢ [d̠ʱ], ধ [dʱ], and ভ [bʱ] from their unaspirated equivalents, with some dialects treating them as allophones of each other and other dialects replacing the former with the latter completely.
Some variants on the Bengali-Assamese continuum, particularly the Chittagonian, Chakma and Sylheti languages, have contrastive tone and so differences in pitch can distinguish words. There is also a distinction between ই and ঈ in many northern Bangladeshi dialects. ই represents the uncommon [ɪ], but ঈ the standard [i] used for both letters in most other dialects.
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yet it is to be noted as a fact, that the cerebral letters are not so much cerebral as they are dental in our speech. If we carefully notice our pronunciation of the letters of the 'ট' class we will see that we articulate 'ট' and 'ড,' for example, almost like English T and D without turning up the tip of the tongue much away from the region of the teeth.
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